Posts Tagged ‘Rail Passengers Association’

Planned Dining Service Changes on Auto Train May be Predictor of Future of Amtrak’s Long-Distance Trains

July 22, 2019

The recent announcement by Amtrak of changes to on-board service aboard the Auto Train might be a blueprint for the “experiential” long-distance service that Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson has alluded to in public comments.

However, the upgrades that the carrier is making for sleeping car passengers on the Auto Train stand somewhat in stark contrast with what is happening with onboard service on other eastern long-distance trains.

In a news release, Amtrak said that starting in January Auto Train sleeping car passengers will receive complimentary wine with dinner as well as better linens and towels.

The release spoke of new dinner and breakfast menus, but it is not clear if that will involve food freshly prepared onboard or prepared off the train by a catering company.

The Auto Train announcement came about the same time that news broke that Amtrak plans to extend its “contemporary dining” program to its other eastern long-distance trains.

That program began aboard the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited in June 2018 and involves serving sleeping car passengers box meals in their rooms or in the dining car.

When “contemporary dining” began, Amtrak sought to sell it as an improvement in the sense that passengers received a complimentary alcoholic beverage with their meals, would be able to eat when they wanted, and would have exclusive use of the dining car throughout their trip.

Initially, all of the sleeper class food aboard the Capitol and Lake Shore was served cold, but after a couple months one hot offering was added at dinner and breakfast.

The Auto Train announcement also referenced expanding sleeping car capacity during peak travel periods, but no such move was made for the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited.

Nor did Amtrak upgrade the linens and towels available for use by sleeping car passengers on those trains. Aside: those improved linens and towels may not be all that much. Amtrak is not about to become a high-end hotel.

Coach passengers aboard the Auto Train will be losing their complimentary dinner. Instead, Amtrak said it will expand the café car menu of meals, snacks and beverages. It also said it will have food truck vendors at the stations in Lorton, Virginia, and Sanford, Florida, that coach passengers can patronize.

That sounds like a 21st century version of the 19th century practice of passenger trains making meal stops at designated points.

Auto train coach passengers will receive a complimentary continental breakfast. That is more than coach passengers get on any other long-distance train.

Commenting on the Auto Train changes, the Rail Passengers Association noted that these changes are in line with the desire of Amtrak management to more clearly delineate travel classes. It also might be a scheme to delineate types of trains.

The Auto Train is unique among long-distance trains in not having intermediate stations. The clientele of the Auto Train is different in many ways from that of other long-distance trains and the more well-heeled among them might be the target audience Amtrak is seeking with the experiential trains.

I’ve long thought that Anderson might have in mind duplicating the Rocky Mountaineer or even VIA Rail Canada’s Canadian, both of which attract a lot of affluent tour group travelers with disposable income to spend on experiences.

The Washington-Florida travel market has long been a strong one and is the only Amtrak long-distance market to have double daily service between endpoints even if those trains take different routes within North Carolina and South Carolina.

The implementation of “contemporary dining” on the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited last year also represented a delineation between sleeper class and coach class in the sense that the latter are now limited to café car fare or bringing their own food with them aboard the train. But no food trucks.

In an analysis posted on its website last week, the RPA said Amtrak has hinted that the contemporary dining to be imposed on the Crescent and Silver Meteor, the only remaining eastern long-distance trains with full-service dining cars, will be different from that now available on the Capitol and Lake Shore. But RPA said it is not clear how or why it will be different.

“Meanwhile, problems with availability, choice and dietary restrictions have soured the perceptions of many repeat riders,” RPA wrote.

The rail passenger advocacy group acknowledged that Amtrak is trying to balance modern tastes and sensibilities within a long-distance ridership audience that includes large percentages of patrons who do not share those tastes and sensibilities.

RPA pointed out that one of its members wrote to say about “contemporary dining,” that “The food honestly is both better, tastier and more in line with how I eat when I am dieting like now and how my kids eat. Plus I like the dedicated lounge space in between meals.”

The latter comment reflects a facet of train travel that doesn’t get much attention.

If you are going to shell out the big bucks Amtrak demands for sleeper class, you want more than your own room and bed at night.

Amtrak argues that its surveys have found many passengers want less heavy meals and want to be able to eat when they choose rather that during fixed mealtimes.

Many passengers also don’t care for the community seating that has long been associated with eating in a railroad dining car. These passengers would rather not dine in the company of strangers.

Of course, RPA said, some passengers have found the food of “contemporary dining” to be terrible and even those who like the food have been put off by how it is presented.

That probably is an allusion to it coming in cardboard boxes and plastic containers, something that is being done because it is less costly and easier to manage.

In its analysis, the RPA said there are too few choices available with current “contemporary dining” fare, particularly with hot meal options.

“Members also tell us that kosher options are a problem, as are options for those with food allergies or sensitivities like gluten intolerance,” RPA wrote, “We’ve also heard from many of our members about entrees running out very early in the dining service.”

At the time that “contemporary dining” was launched, Amtrak said it would eventually allow coach passengers to purchase the meals made available to sleeper class passengers, but thus far that has not occurred.

Amtrak has said it is seeking to satisfy a Congressional mandate to cut its food and beverage deficit so the changes being made to the Auto Train and other eastern long-distance trains are being imposed with that in mind.

That means reducing the number of onboard employees involved in food and beverage service as well as trying to cut the cost of food and beverage acquisition.

The food trucks for coach passengers concept fits well into this framework because it shifts the risk onto an entrepreneur who probably is paying Amtrak a fee for the privilege of selling food trackside.

I wonder, by the way, what will happen when Amtrak begins getting complaints about food odors lingering in the air long after the food has been consumed.

Much of how Amtrak is framing these changes is akin to Michael Jackson’s fabled moonwalk in which he moves backwards while giving the illusion of moving forward.

Many railfans dislike “contemporary dining” but they are not necessarily representative of those who buy sleeper class tickets.

The sleeping customers are not necessarily looking for gourmet dining on wheels or trying to recreate the experience of traveling on the Broadway Limited, Super Chief, Twentieth Century Limited or the Capitol Limited during their heyday before Amtrak came along.

They want a good meal and friendly service that makes them feel that the hefty accommodation charge they paid was worth it.

Serving sleeper class passengers a complimentary alcoholic beverage and giving them exclusive use of a dining car turned lounge is fine, but can be negated by offering meals that too much resemble a school field trip box lunch.

RPA is correct in saying presentation is a problem here, but to get restaurant style presentation is labor intensive and reducing labor costs is one of Amtrak’s objectives.

Whatever shortcomings that “contemporary dining” may have, it could be worse.

Amtrak could borrow Southern Pacific’s playbook of providing food and beverage service from vending machines. Maybe it’s just a matter of time.

Senate Committee To Consider Amtrak Board Pick

July 21, 2019

A July 24 hearing has been set by the Senate Committee on Commerce to consider a nominee for a position on the Amtrak board of directors.

The Trump administration has nominated former Indiana Congress Todd Rokita to the board, a move that drew opposition from some rail passenger advocates due to his support of amendments would have ended funding for some Amtrak service had those amendments been adopted.

Rail Passengers Association President Jim Mathews said his group opposes the Rokita nomination although he said the former congressman is likely to say the right things during his hearing.

The nomination of Rokita was announced last May.

Amtrak Wants Passengers to Agree to Arbitration

June 24, 2019

Amtrak has joined a growing movement of forcing dissatisfied customers to go to arbitration to resolve dispute.

However, the Rail Passengers Association said the policy leaves a lot of unanswered questions, including for group travel because there is no legal authority to accept arbitration terms on behalf of individual travelers.

On it website, RPA said Amtrak’s consumer-arbitration provisions are drawing attention, but the current political climate had made it nearly impossible to fight back.

RPA said arbitration has become the de facto standard throughout the U.S. economy and the courts, Congress and executive branch have all shown little willingness to change it.

Companies typically require customers to sign an agreement when purchasing a produce or service to take disputes before an American Arbitration Association arbitrator rather than going to court.

In a statement posted on its website earlier this year, Amtrak contended that arbitration is more efficient than drawn out legal proceedings and less costly. The statement also contended that passengers could contact Amtrak directly to work out claims rather than go to arbitration.

Consumer advocacy groups argue that forcing customers into binding arbitration agreements effectively means they are signing away their right to civil remedies in court.

They say that the results of arbitration are often worse for consumers than civil court proceedings.

RPA said passengers have few options to avoid arbitration. They could refuse to buy tickets under those terms but that would mean not being able to travel.

They could also file suit in a federal court and argue that their claim or dispute is barred from arbitration by federal law.

6 Senators Awarded RPA Golden Spike Award

April 3, 2019

Six U.S. senators have received the Golden Spike Award from the Rail Passengers Association for their work to save Amtrak’s Southwest Chief.

RPA said the award was shared by Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colorado), Cory Gardner (R-Colorado), Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico), Jerry Moran (R-Kansas.), Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) and Tom Udall (D-New Mexico.

In a news release, RPA said the six were lauded “for the crucial role they played in saving the Southwest Chief train, and for their service to the tens of millions of Americans who depend on a national train network.”

Specifically, they opposed Amtrak’s proposal to replace the train with a bus bridge between Dodge City, Kansas, and Albuquerque.

They were able to get approved in the federal fiscal year 2019 budget a set-aside for preservation work on the route of the Chief.

Amtrak also later reversed an earlier decision to withhold matching funding for a construction grant that will bring an additional $26 million in track rebuilding.

Study Finds Economic Benefit of Chicago-St. Paul Train

March 4, 2019

The Railroad Passengers Association issued a research note last week that argues that a second daily train between Chicago and the Twin Cities would generate a $47 million annual economic benefit in Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Of that, $25 million would benefit Minnesota. The train would divert 90,000 people from car travel to rail travel.

RPA said the economic benefits to Minnesota would be eight- to 10-times Minnesota’s annual net spending to support the potential new service, which is an estimated $2 to $3 million.

The association said its work was a follow-up to a study conducted by Amtrak in 2015.

It noted that the Amtrak study was confined to assessing the feasibility of adding a second train in addition to current Empire Builder.

RPA said its study looked at the total economic benefits of running a second train.

The RPA research note can be viewed at: www.railpassengers.org/site/assets/files/8142/rpa_research_note-_new_train_to_mn.pdf

 

Amtrak Eyeing Major Revamp of Its Route Network

February 22, 2019

The big news concerning Amtrak this week was a report in the Wall Street Journal that Amtrak plans to revamp its route network to emphasize new corridors, primarily in the South and West.

The Journal quoted an unnamed Amtrak official as saying: “We are undertaking a major rethinking of the national network and how we offer service on the national network. That study and planning isn’t done yet, and we aren’t prepared to announce any plans or recommendations yet—those will come in our reauthorization proposal.”

The newspaper report said the route restructuring is being prompted in part by a need to replace or retire the aging Superliner fleet devoted to most long-distance trains.

Another factor is that Amtrak must be reauthorized by Congress later this year.

Amtrak officials have been hinting for at least a year at a change in the carrier’s business focus.

During a speech in California, Amtrak President Richard Anderson described the long-distance trains as experiential.

Anthony Coscia, the chairman of the Amtrak board of directors, told the Rail Passengers Association in a meeting last May that in the long term the overall shape of Amtrak’s national network is likely due to population shifts, demographic trends and economic growth.

Coscia expressed Amtrak’s desire to develop corridor routes with strong potential for growth in unserved or lightly served areas.

Writing on the Trains magazine website, columnist Fred Frailey said the implication of the report by the Wall Street Journal is that Amtrak wants to operate daylight service between large city pairs.

Frailey quoted at length the remarks of Amtrak’s Stephen Gardner, a senior executive vice president, at the Rail Trends meeting in New York City last November.

“We’re looking at a different America. They do not live half in the city and half in the country,” Gardner said. “Now the vast majority live in major metropolitan areas. And those metro areas are shifting. The Northeast will be a net loser.

“Where growth is happening is in the South, Mountain West and West. And guess who lives in those metro areas? It’s Millennials, by far.”

Gardner went on to say that this has resulted in a mismatch between population density, transportation demand and Amtrak’s current network.

Frailey speculated that what ultimately may occur is that some of Amtrak’s long-distance routes will be split into segments operating during the daytime.

He cited the example of the Chicago-New Orleans route, which might be broken into Chicago-Memphis and New Orleans-Memphis segments.

New Congress, Old Priorities for Rail Industry

February 12, 2019

It may be a new Congress, but the railroad industry is continuing to push old priorities in Washington.

An analysis by Progressive Railroading magazine said among the priorities are a permanent extension of the 45G short-line tax credit, keeping existing truck size and weight restrictions, and approval of an infrastructure package that includes funding priority for freight and passenger rail.

How much the industry is able to get done is an open question given that the House is controlled by Democrats and the Senate by Republicans.

Some railroad industry lobbyists say an environment of hyper partisanship combined with hard feelings lingering from the recent 35-day federal government shutdown will make it a challenge to create agreement on transportation policy.

Yet some are optimistic that an infrastructure plan might be a rare example of bi-partisan agreement, in part by trying to portray it as good for urban and rural communities.

The Rail Passengers Association is seeking to prod Congress into address the on-time woes of Amtrak trains by creating a a charter for a Shared-Use Corridor Advisory Committee to develop new “mutually satisfactory solutions” on Amtrak’s shared use of rail routes with its host railroads.

The committee would be similar to the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee and use a collaborative approach to find mutually agreeable solutions to safety regulatory issues.

Although most of industry’s legislative priorities have been around awhile, some new matters the industry is overseeing include discussing the potential regulation of precision scheduled railroading and automation.

“A huge amount of education is needed,” said Chuck Baker, the new president of the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association.

“A lot of these new members are interested in infrastructure, so we think we’ll have a friendly playing field,” he said.

The Association of American Railroads expects the trucking industry to again seek to get Congress to increase the weight and size limit of trucks.

AAR is calling for what it termed “reasonable” limits on truck size on interstate highways of 80,000 pounds in weight and no more than two 28-foot trailers in total length.

The trucking industry has been seeking to increase these limits through the use of pilot programs to test larger trucks.

The rail industry fears that these programs could lead to higher limits being made permanent at the national level.

An infrastructure program, though, lies at the top of legislative priorities.

Railroad interests are hoping for an infrastructure package coupled with reauthorization of the

Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act of 2015, which is set to expire in September 2020.

The reauthorization is expected to include funding for Amtrak and the Gateway/Hudson River tunnel projects in New York.

Lawmakers are also expected to debate funding of the Highway Trust Fund and its Mass Transit Account with those discussions focused in part on whether to increase the federal tax on gasoline that motorists pay at the pump.

Other funding alternatives for the HTF that are expected to be discussed include a general sales tax, a vehicle miles traveled fee and a per-barrel tax on crude oil.

Jim Mathews, president of RPA, said his group wants Congress to look at a variety of funding options, including a passenger-rail trust fund. “We think it’s about time that we had a predictable, dedicated source of funding for passenger rail,” he said.

Report Examines Effects of SW Chief Bus Bridge

January 19, 2019

Had Amtrak go ahead with its idea to bus passengers over a portion of the route of the Southwest Chief it would have lost $135 in the affected communities a new study has found.

The study, conducted by the University of Southern Mississippi for the Rail Passengers Association said the bus bridge between Albuquerque and Dodge City, Kansas, would have led to $180 million in annual losses.

The report, titled Bustituted: The Socioeconomic Impacts of Replacing Southwest Chief Service Over Raton Pass said the annual $180-million economic loss would be the result of “Permanent Direct Economic Losses” totaling $116.4 million, as well as “Permanent Indirect Losses” of $63.7 million.

Direct losses involve such things as cancelled operating spending, fewer visitors and lost income from those visitors, and higher travel costs for families that live along the Southwest Chief route. The indirect losses would be felt through increased pollution control, highway fatalities, increased highway maintenance and forgone trips.

The report said those losses are more than three times what Amtrak requests from Congress to operate the Southwest Chief between Chicago and Los Angeles.

The full report can be found at https://www.railpassengers.org/site/assets/files/8060/southwest_chief_economic_impact_study_final_bbb_1-11.pdf

Improved Food Service May be Coming to Amtrak

December 17, 2018

A post on the website of the Rail Passengers Association hints that improved food service options are coming to Amtrak.

That announcement followed a meeting with RPA President Jim Mathrews RPA vice president Sean Jeans-Gail met Amtrak management.

RPA said that Amtrak is working on some service enhancement measures that it might begin implementing as soon as January.

Although the RPA posting said it can’t release details on those until contracts are announced, it did say that better food, and more hot options are on the way.

“We also this week received explicit assurances that the long-term vision for the National Network is an improved service “with more traditional dining options,” Mathews wrote.

Amtrak Eyeing Superliner Replacement or Rebuilding

December 10, 2018

Amtrak has given a hint that it is considering a plan for replacement or rebuilding of its Superliner fleet.

In a letter to Rail Passengers Association Jim Mathews, Amtrak Chairman Anthony Coscia said the carrier is evaluating what he termed an “appropriate strategy” for the Superliner fleet, which is primarily assigned to long-distance trains.

Coscia noted that several of Amtrak’s equipment fleets are nearing the end of their useful lives.

“We are eager to grow and expand service to currently underserved cities, corridors and communities across the country,” Coscia wrote. “We are hopeful there will be opportunities for expansion onto new routes in places like Kansas, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois.”

He also indicated that Amtrak’s PRIIA-required Route Improvement Plans are providing an opportunity to examine options for daily service for the Cardinal and Sunset Limited.

“Of course, to do so will require reasonable cooperation from our host railroads and available equipment,” Coscia wrote.

It is not yet what steps Amtrak might take to address the wearing out Superliner fleet.